Prime Mover Magazine

NRMA: The big picture

NRMA: The big picture

In a ground-breaking national research project, NRMA Business Motoring has created what could be the largest pool of data on the reliability of Australia’s heavy vehicle fleet seen to date – with more than one surprising result.

In November 2015, roadside assistance specialist NRMA Business Motoring caused a stir among the road transport community in NSW and the ACT when it collaborated with Prime Mover magazine on the creation of the company’s first-ever heavy vehicle breakdown report for the region. 

Back then, the joint research project unveiled that the top breakdown reason for commercial vehicles working in the southeast of Australia was the battery – arguably due to the increasing strain caused by added electronic equipment on board – followed by wheel and tyre issues, which often relate back to a faulty maintenance and service regime.

“The feedback we received on the first report was phenomenal,” says Matthew Beattie, Head of NRMA Business Motoring. “We all know about the importance of preventative maintenance and detailed service processes, but quantifying the risk behind it suddenly made the issue a lot more tangible – not just for our own clientele, but everyone operating a truck in NSW and the ACT.

“It went to show that even though commercial vehicles are far more reliable nowadays than they once were, mechanical or electrical problems can strike at any time. As such, the report made managers and operational staff in transport companies question whether they were sufficiently prepared for these scenarios or not. Risk management was brought back to the very top of the industry agenda as a result, which we are very pleased about.”

Matthew says the positive impact the report had on the industry in the country’s southeast prompted him and his team to dive even deeper into the topic and roll out the project nationwide*. “NRMA Business Motoring is currently looking after businesses with more than 6,000 trucks and heavy vehicles Australia-wide, so it made sense to take the vast amount of data generated in helping them to see how the transport industry is doing on a national level,” he explains – pointing out that the research window covered the full 12-month period between March 2015 and March 2016.

Part 1 proved that breakdown coverage is extremely topical for transport businesses in Australia. Feedback showed that a breakdown can cause a big impact for a professional fleet, with a lot of workshop managers indicating we encouraged them to review their current maintenance regimes based on the data we provided.

“While that’s exactly the result we were hoping to achieve, we quickly realised that there was a lot of curiosity as to whether the issues we singled out were local only. Especially given that the NHVR (National Heavy Vehicle Regulator, ed.) is only just rolling out the second version of the National Heavy Vehicle Inspection Manual, they were hoping a national perspective could bring even more clarity to the issue. So we went straight back to work.”

In analysing the stockpile of data NRMA Business Motoring has compiled in response to feedback received after the November report, Matthew and his team recognised a distinct difference between the NSW/ ACT sample and the national result. While battery and tyre/ wheel-related issues still lead the organisation’s breakdown top 10, much of the ranking shifted as new states were added to the data set.

For example, electrical issues, the third most common reason for a breakdown in NSW/ACT, dropped to eighth on the national listing, with problems related to the cooling system plunging from sixth place to ninth. Engine problems, meanwhile, are much more common nationally, soaring from rank eight to four, with transmission issues also up a spot on the national scoreboard. New in the top 10 are a more driver-focused issue, the lock-out, as well as alternator malfunction. Not included on the national hit list – and arguably the most positive take-away from Part 2 of the research project – is brake failure, says Matthew.

“Seeing such a critical issue drop out of the top 10 is certainly a highlight,” he says. “The same is true for the electrical system – it’s good to see more uptime in that category nationally. But especially the rise of engine issues, and with them transmission trouble, is concerning.”

According to Matthew, one explanation for that development may be the rising share of line-haul businesses in the national overview, where electrical issues during lay-off times are less common, but average engine usage tends to go up substantially. “We’re looking at different workloads in the national report, with more long-distance driving and less local idling. Naturally that will change the technical break-down somewhat. Still, seeing engine issues climb to fourth spot is something we as an industry may need to address, and it will certainly lead to an investigation from our side, too.”

In line with that, a new statistic collated especially for the national edition of the report is now looking at the changing importance of technical issues according to vehicle age. It can confirm that battery-related call-outs are most common for vehicles built between 2011 and 2013, with older-generation commercial vehicles much less likely to strand due a flat battery. Engine problems seem to accumulate around the 2014 generation, but are notably absent from call-out protocols concerning vehicles built between 1991 and 2000 – either because of statistical inaccuracy or because they are, indeed, in a flawless mechanical condition.

Meanwhile, issues with the cooling system, are almost non-existent for vehicles built in 2013 and beyond. Instead, they seem to plague the 2000-2002 cohort in particular, with a second spike in 2005. Wheel and tyre issues are least likely for vehicles made in 2003, but more frequent for those that are only one or two years old.

Geographically, NRMA Business Motoring’s national data set is much more predictable. Despite a strong focus on the company’s home state of NSW and the eastern seaboard in general, the national ‘heat map’ Matthew and his team developed in response to Part 1 is much in line with general economic activity in Australia, as determined by a 2014 Grattan Institute report. It found that 80 per cent of the dollar value of all goods and services in Australia are produced on just 0.2 per cent of the nation’s landmass, with a special focus on major cities and metropolitan areas.

With strong port activity in both Brisbane and Melbourne, for example, the two capital cities stand out as key risk areas, with the Melbourne metro region especially prone to a roadside call-out. “The depth of the call-out cluster you see emerge around Melbourne is a sign of the city’s importance as a regional freight hub,” Matthew explains. “From here, freight is being delivered to all of Victoria, with traffic subsequently dispersing in every direction. The result is a very coherent pattern similar to the one we see in Sydney, albeit at a smaller scale.”

Call-out density in country Victoria is especially high along the M1 between Melbourne and Bairnsdale, and the Hume Highway in the State’s northeast. The border with NSW is also breakdown prone, with a local high in and around Echuca and steady call-out rates along the Murray Valley Highway – which may also be linked to increased tourist traffic in the region, which could lead to above-average braking and heat development.

In Queensland, meanwhile, NRMA Business Motoring’s research team has identified a less ‘deep’, yet equally strong breakdown band stretching from the Sunshine Coast all the way south to the Gold Coast, with a distinct spike in the Toowoomba/ Dalby direction. Additional breakdown hot spots form around Rockhampton, Townswille and Cairns, with a spike along the A4 between Rockhampton and Emerald. “In line with our NSW/ ACT report, you see the majority of breakdowns occur along the main trade route on the eastern seaboard,” says Matthew. “But there is a distinct spike on the Capricorn Highway, which links the city of Rockhampton with the Central Highlands area in the west. We believe there is a connection to local coal mining – be it to the industry itself or the sub-sectors supplying it.”

The breakdown density to the west of Cairns is negligible, according to Matthew, with growing intensity around major regional centres such as Darwin, Karratha or Geraldton “expectable”. More surprising is the sizable call-out cluster around Perth, which, albeit patchy, stretches as far south as Bunbury. Increasing industrial activity around the ports of Fremantle and Bunbury may be triggering a rise in traffic – and with it a higher breakdown probability – he says, but the accumulation could also be linked to the controversial $1.6 billion Perth Freight link project, which is meant to connect the Perth suburb of Kewdale with Fremantle.

South Australia, meanwhile, is largely free of excessive clustering, apart from a small build-up around Adelaide between Gawler in the north and McLaren Vale in the south, and sporadic spikes along the Dukes Highway (A8) in Murray Bridge, Coombe and Bordertown.

In a move to expand on the data collated for Part 1 of the research project, NRMA Business Monitoring also examined the GVM of each broken down vehicle, finding that the bulk of call-outs are occurring in the mass-market category below 3.5t. A distinct spike is visible in the four-tonne category, followed by 10 and 15/16t, respectively. “It’s only natural for the bulk of incidents to occur in the below 3.5t bracket, given the majority of vehicles on the road fall into that category,” says Matthew. “What’s interesting to see is the clustering around four tonnes, which may be linked to the boom in van sales we are currently seeing, and 15t, which could reflect the industry’s recent movement toward more versatile heavy rigid trucks, and away from articulated combinations, which are also often the most thoroughly maintained if you look at the big picture.”

In line with the NSW/ACT data, vehicle age may not be a reliable variable to predict the likelihood of a breakdown on a national level – even though there is the odd exception. While the majority of vehicles NRMA Business Motoring attended to in 2015 have been manufactured somewhere in between 2000 and 2012, with 2010 the clear standout, the national report shows 2012 is the year of manufacture with the most call-outs registered, followed by 2014 and 2010. According to Matthew, that phenomenon may be linked to the rollout of Euro V emission standards in Australia around 2010 and 2011, with the changeover to new technology arguably causing the odd hiccup.

Staying in the time category, the weekday with the highest breakdown risk, according to NRMA Business Motoring, remains Monday, with the weekend ranking lowest on the breakdown risk table – regardless of the region covered. The call-out risk is decreasing successively during the week, with Friday the least busy business day for the national NRMA support crew.

Regardless of the weekday, Matthew says the person behind the wheel, as well as all back office staff, must have a plan of what to do when the infamous ‘check engine’ warning light comes on or any other issue occurs while a commercial vehicle is still in transit – even though experts agree that regular maintenance and inspection by drivers could avoid 90 per cent of the most common problems NRMA Business Motoring has detected.

“The unfortunate reality is that issues do occur, and even though we now have a better understanding of where and why they happen, there is still no alternative to playing it safe,” he says. “Any roadside issue could result in additional costs for repair, towing, downtime, re-dispatching another truck, the lost opportunity cost for the truck that is down and in some cases, result in the loss of a customer. Our research hasn’t covered it, but I would assume the majority of transport businesses would rather have peace of mind than take that risk.”

The next step, he adds, is to go through the new, national data set in detail to assess it in a big picture context. “Some of the information we extracted on behalf of Prime Mover has left us wondering,” he says. “The strong focus on young equipment, for example, is an indication that those who already run a relatively new and well maintained fleet are also mindful enough to back it up with a breakdown assistance policy. Pre-1990 equipment, meanwhile, is often not sufficiently covered, although it would arguably need the most attention. Hence, we definitely have some educating to do in that area to ensure we also look after those who need us the most.

“In line with that, we need drivers to be more aware of the importance of routine check-ups, especially when going into a new week. We already said it in our NSW/ACT report, and it’s still true after expanding the project – pending wheel-end failures could and should be dealt with in the pre-trip or at inspection during the driver’s break. We all like to see the pilot inspecting the plane on the tarmac, so why not expect the driver to walk around and inspect the truck wheels at every break stop?”

According to Matthew, NRMA Business Monitoring is planning to actively support Australian transport businesses on the path to creating a safe, technically sound national truck fleet – starting with providing the kind of data they need to avoid the most common roadside issues.

“It’s all about creating awareness. Imagine you break down with a load of fresh produce on the back and the clock ticking and you don’t have a policy in place. I don’t think I exaggerate if I say you will face a perfect storm of problems, which could prove extremely stressful for everyone involved – both up and down the supply chain. It may not always be avoidable – even with all the information we decided to share with the market – but it’s much less painful if you have a plan in place how to deal with it.”

The full story has appeared in the April edition of Prime Mover. To get your copy, click here.

*All information supplied without liability

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